“I like the spirit of this great London which I feel around me.” Charlotte Brontë, Villette
For decades the question of what the Brontë sisters actually looked like has been both a puzzle and an inspiration for devotees of the sisters’ literary works. It is only natural that we should desire to put faces to the names that we feel so connected to through their words, just as we do with other famous names from the literary world (Shakespeare perhaps being the most mysterious and elusive of them all). There are many idealized and imagined images of the sisters which can be found circulating on the internet; recently a website has even been created claiming to analyse the only known and authentic photograph of the sisters. The site makes fascinating and intriguing reading, and also provides other images of the Brontë family, both real and imagined.
However, the fact remains that the only member of the Brontë family known to have been the subject of a photograph is the family patriarch, Patrick Brontë. Although there are two well-known and widely used portraits of Charlotte by George Richmond and John Hunter Thompson, there are many problems with these images. Richmond’s portrait dates from 1850, however, it is very much an idealized and romanticized image of Charlotte, commissioned by her publisher George Smith as a gift to her father, Patrick. Richmond produced a rather flattering image of an author who was described as having plain features, a big nose, and a crooked smile by those who knew her, such as the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. Thompson’s image is even more problematic as it was based on Richmond’s work rather than on Charlotte herself.
“As for the rest of her features, they were plain, large, and ill set; but, unless you began to catalogue them, you were hardly aware of the fact, for the eyes and power of the countenance over-balanced every physical defect; the crooked mouth and large nose were forgotten…” Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë
Over the years, many have been fooled by images purporting to be of Charlotte; even the National Portrait Gallery in London, where Richmond’s portrait is housed, has a painting in its collection of an unknown woman reading a book which was once thought to be of Charlotte. The artist of the piece is also unknown so it is impossible to say whether or not the public perception of Charlotte Brontë shaped the picture and inspired the artist. With regards to the other Brontë siblings, there are confirmed drawings of Anne made by Charlotte during their youth which match the descriptions we have from family friends such as Ellen Nussey:
“Her hair was a very pretty light brown, and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, fine pencilled eyebrows and a clear almost transparent complexion.” Ellen Nussey, qtd. in The Brontës at Haworth
Emily remains stubbornly elusive, although there is a description of her from Ellen Nussey again, who stated she had:
“a lithesome graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house except her Father, her hair which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte’s was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes, kind, kindling, liquid eyes…” Ellen Nussey, qtd. in The Brontës at Haworth
However, there is an authentic image of the sisters which we can turn to for answers, and was produced during their lifetime by somebody intimately acquainted with the sisters, and who shared their joys and sufferings in childhood and adolescence. The artist in question is of course, their brother, Branwell Brontë, for years saddled with the reputation of being the wayward, disgraced, and good-for-nothing Brontë. Although there is no doubt that Branwell was wild and addicted to both drink and drugs, he is the artist responsible for the painting of the Brontë sisters known as “The Pillar Portrait” (c.1833/4). This painting is the only verified image we have of all three surviving sisters together. This is not a painting done retrospectively, nor is it designed to especially flatter the sitters; the image was created from life by a brother and aspiring artist who knew his sisters’ features well during his training under the painter William Robinson. It was also the creation of a teenager who seems to have disliked his depiction of himself in the image and subsequently painted himself out using the pillar referred to in the title. The fact that he did not destroy the entire painting surely demonstrates that he was at least reasonably happy with the depiction of his sisters.
Although Branwell painted himself out of the painting, his image is slowly re-appearing over the years as the paint obscuring his figure fades. There are of course, other images of Branwell we can turn to for answers regarding his physical appearance including his well-known self-portrait dated from around 1840.
“The Pillar Portrait” is iconic, and although a replica hangs proudly in the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, the former home of the family and the spiritual home of Brontë devotees such as myself, the original hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. For years this plagued me; I felt as though this vital part of Brontë history had been cast adrift from the rest, and that it was marooned in London, with only the portrait of Emily (or Anne) to keep it company. As much as we adore the Brontës, and although their works are set in places as far-flung as Belgium and Africa, these children of the moors belong in and to the North of England.
The Pillar Portrait on Display at the National Portrait Gallery, London, February 2018.Although I have visited Haworth and gazed adoringly at the replica painting more times than I can count, I have always had a burning desire to see the original, and yet had never quite managed it. Thanks to a list longer than my arm of things to do and see each time I have visited London over the years, the Brontës’ portrait had never quite made it to the top of the list. I was determined to change that during Charlotte’s bicentenary celebrations in 2016, and again during Branwell’s in 2017. I knew I had to make 2018 a year of changes on many levels, and what better excuse did I need?
Visiting London on Monday for the Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library, I decided to finally visit the sisters in London. The British Library is home to many examples of the Brontës’ juvenilia and tiny books, and again, this is always something that has annoyed me somewhat. I’ve always been of the opinion that everything Brontë related belongs in Haworth, however, the manuscripts are carefully preserved by the British Library for the benefit of future generations, and it is even possible to view the texts in their entirety on the British Library’s website either for curiosity or research purposes. Although I am beginning to embark on more Brontë juvenilia research, it was not my intention to visit these treasures in the archives this time. Instead, my destination after Harry Potter was the beautiful reading rooms where I had requested several obscure and difficult to access editions of Charlotte and Branwell’s juvenilia. I had requested these texts in advance to avoid disappointment as the previous week I had noticed them being used within the reading rooms, demonstrating that there is an interest in scholarly editions of these works.
It seemed strange to be sat in such a grand and beautiful building in the heart of London, hundreds of miles away from both my own Northern home, and that of the Brontës, immersing myself in their fantasy worlds of Glass Town and Angria. As I left the building, for the first time ever, I realised that the Brontë collection housed by the British Library was no bad thing. Visiting and handling these texts allows one a glimpse of the spirit of the Brontës, even when so far from home.
My next destination was the National Portrait Gallery. In my excitement I think I went the length and breadth of the building before finally finding the Pillar Portrait. I actually did a circle of the room it was housed in and somehow missed it on the other side of the door I had just walked through. It was only when my boyfriend had the sense to look for the room number that we found it when we re-entered the room from the other side. Although smaller than I had imagined, I must have stood there for an eternity, assessing the damage and cracks, and drinking the details of the painting and the features of the sisters, including, of course, their eyes. Next to it is the now disputed portrait of Emily/Anne, also painted by Branwell, and sadly, also badly damaged. I am sure Branwell never dreamt his paintings would one day hang next to depictions of famous authors such as Charles Dickens.
Rather than feeling aggrieved that the only authentic image of the sisters is housed in London, I am quite glad that a piece of their spirit can be found so far from home, after all, it is the place where their literary aspirations became a reality when their works were accepted for publication. It is fitting that the piece of their spirit captured by Branwell is housed in the South of England, for although the Brontës are children of the North, they belong to all of us, and we should take comfort that we can find them anywhere and everywhere.
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